In-Depth Arena

Strangers in the house

Published 27 Mar, 2015 01:46pm

Colonial knowledge systems solidified the boundaries of consciousness between and among the populations living in colonised societies. Colonial ethnography (carried out mostly by anthropologists and administrators) classified the colonised populations into mutually exclusive categories based on ethnicity, religion and race. Detailed descriptions of physical characteristics (such as skin colour) and belief systems (such as Hinduism or Islam), along with the counting of the numbers of such groups (now called the census) led to notions of ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ which, over time, became reinforced by becoming politicised. Prior to the processes of counting, separating, classifying and identifying specific group characteristics, people were generally unaware of how many of them were in each group and the divisions and differences were not a source of incessant conflict over resources and political and economic power.

Majoritarian democracy and unequal citizenship

With the advent of the modern systems of governance premised on the ideas of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, ethnic and religious divides became the basis of contestation and conflict. Populations classified into mutually exclusive categories became ‘vote banks’ based on ethnicity or religion. In the past, people sometimes identified themselves as ‘Hindu Muslims’ which meant a Muslim living in Hindustan. However, within the new forms of classification it was impossible to be a Hindu Muslim as the identity came to be defined in purely religious terms.

In Western societies the idea of majority rule was based purely on numerical majority — the party for which the largest number of people voted would be in office. In the Subcontinent the concept of majority became associated with religion, ethnicity, caste, sect and other markers of social differentiation. Colonial methods of administering populations created political consciousness based on religion and/or ethnicity. For example, the partition of Bengal in 1905, ostensibly for administrative efficiency, fomented the consciousness that Muslims constituted a majority in East Bengal and certain other parts of India. This consciousness had political ramifications and in the following year, 1906, the All India Muslim League was established in Dhaka. Although the partition of Bengal was rescinded in 1911 after much agitation, the seeds of separatism were sowed and culminated in geographies being divided on the basis of religion.

Once territory was divided on the basis of belief, certain members of the population became ‘minorities’. Over time they came to be treated as strangers in their own house, the outsiders within. It was not long before certain sections of the ruling classes, brandishing a specific version of religion, came to use the idea of ‘majority rule’ to attain power. In post-Partition Pakistan, majority rule came to mean ‘rule of the religious majority’.

Democracy became hostage to religion and the conservative ruling classes declared that modern, Westminster-style democracy was incompatible with Islam. For example, Maulana Maududi declared that “Islam is the very antithesis of secular Western democracy. The philosophical foundation of western democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Lawmaking is their prerogative and legislation must correspond to the mood and temper of their opinion … Islam altogether repudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of the sovereignty of God and the viceregency.”

In 1947, Jinnah had tried to de-emphasise the role of religion in affairs of the state but his death in 1948 meant that the power to define the nation now fell to his successors. Drawing upon religious nationalism which had, in fact, become irrelevant as Pakistan was a Muslim-majority country, the Constituent Assembly passed the Objectives Resolution in 1949 incorporating Maulana Maududi’s theory of divine sovereignty and overriding the serious concerns and objections of the minority members such as Sir Chandra Chattophadhay, Birat Chandra Mandal and Bhupendra Kumar Dutta. The Objectives Resolution formed the preamble of Pakistan’s three constitutions and was made a substantive part of the Constitution in 1985 through the insertion of Article 2-A. This resolution set the stage for the definition of the nation within the paradigm of religious nationalism.

Religious nationalism as antithesis of democracy

Subsequent to the passage of the Objectives Resolution, all of Pakistan’s constitutions contained religious provisions and the name of the country was changed from Republic of Pakistan to Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The national debates over the kind of nation, state and society envisaged led to compromises being made with the liberal, secular as well as the religious lobby. As a result, the Constitution of 1973, a consensus document, became riddled with internal contradictions regarding citizenship. For example, Article 25 says that all citizens are equal before law while Article 2 says that Islam shall be the state religion. When one religion, to the exclusion of all others, is established as the state religion, how can the followers of other religions be equal citizens? And if they cannot be equal citizens, is democracy possible without citizenship equality? The denial of the right of non-Muslims citizens to become the head of state or government also violates Article 25 which requires equality before law.

This conundrum has not been resolved by subsequent ruling classes whether liberal, secular, religious, moderate, military or civilian. All subsequent rulers, irrespective of ideological orientation, in fact, used religion to perpetuate their power and prolong their tenures. Once the state establishes a dominant religion, that religion becomes the road to political power and privilege. Those wielding political power, in turn, reinforce the dominant religious narrative to further shore up their fortunes. Religion thus becomes a weapon in the hands of the ruling classes to attain, maintain and enhance class power.

Creating minorities

The impact of the imposition of one religion, and particularly one specific version of it, by the state has social and economic implications apart from the political ones mentioned above. As the state begins to create rigid boundaries, a process of minoritisation takes place. In 1947, the Ahmadis were Muslims; in 1974 they were declared non-Muslims in spite of their protests and affirmation that they were Muslims. They are not allowed to practice their religion freely, call their places of worship ‘masjid’, or use the Muslim kalima. Religion was used as an instrument of economic competition as Ahmadis, being generally more educated, were placed in high-ranking jobs and were economically well off. The riots against them in Punjab in the 1950s set the stage for catapulting them out of the pale of Islam. Administrative measures were used to reinforce this division as all those seeking passports and other state documents were forced to condemn the Ahmadis.

In recent years, the minoritisation of Shias has begun with scores being murdered in all the provinces. At the time of Partition, Shias belonged to the Muslim majority but the process of steady minoritisation through violence has led to their becoming the targets of the Wahabi or Deobandi version of religion which is pursued by the state despite not representing the majority of Muslims in Pakistan.

People gather to protest against devastating bomb attacks targeting the local Shia community in Quetta earlier this year
People gather to protest against devastating bomb attacks targeting the local Shia community in Quetta earlier this year

Economic consequences of exclusion

The process of minoritisation leads to economic and social disempowerment. For example, economic persecution in the name of religion was also carried out against the small Sikh minority in Orakzai Agency. According to an editorial in The News on May 3, 2009: “The Sikhs of Orakzai have lived in the agency for decades and by their own admission have never faced any problems or harassment from the tribes. However … after Hakeemullah Mehsud and his men descended on Orakzai and established their own rule, the Sikhs of the agency have lived a terrified existence. They have been veritably held at gunpoint and forced to pay ‘jiziya’ but given the environment that this has happened in, it is nothing but ransom money. The Sikhs were told that either they all convert or they pay the tax. And this is reinforced by published accounts of some of the Sikh family elders, one of whom was kidnapped and tortured by the Orakzai Taliban. The Sikhs, who number not more than a few dozen households, were fast asked to pay over a hundred million rupees — an astronomical amount for any one.”

The economic consequences of political exclusion are discernible in the case of two of the biggest ‘minorities’ in Pakistan — the Christians and the Hindus. A majority of the Christians are located in Punjab where they are engaged in sanitation and cleaning work. Very few members of the Christian community are middle-class lawyers, teachers or professionals. There is enormous social segregation and discrimination as they have separate housing colonies and the Muslims tend to look down upon them while treating them with scorn and disdain. A vast number of Muslims avoid sharing eating and drinking utensils and shaking hands with them or inviting them to their homes. Derogatory names are used to refer to them and there is discrimination against them in hiring practices. Social exclusion and religious prejudice keep them out of lucrative jobs and positions, thus reinforcing their ‘inferior’ status. This leads to a vicious circle of prejudice resulting in exclusion which leads to more prejudice. Lack of economic and social power further leads to absence of political power and vice versa.

The Hindus are mainly concentrated in rural Sindh where a large number of them constitute bonded labour. They are mostly haris belonging to scheduled castes (Kohlis and Bheels among others) who work on the lands of waderas (feudal landlords). The majority of Hindus in interior Sindh live a life of virtual slavery. The landlords can make them work long hours with little in return and they do not have the power to challenge the system or the wadera whose armed goons threaten them with dire consequences if they disobey. Their daughters are kidnapped, forced to accept Islam and marry a Muslim. This practice, supported by some leading political families in the province, has led to the mass exodus of Hindus to neighbouring India. They are oppressed not only at the hands of the Muslims but also upper-caste Hindus. There are very few middle-class Hindus engaged in law, medicine or teaching. They are forced to practice their professions with extreme care and caution for fear of being harassed by Muslims. They find it difficult to teach their religion to their children who are forced to learn Islamic lessons in school. They are forced to either vote for a particular candidate or made to desist from voting for some other. They can exercise their right to vote freely only at the risk of violence by the goons of the landlord.

Minorities and elections 2013

With the general election approaching, it is instructive to see the extent to which non-Muslim citizens may hope to get representation in order for their myriad issues to be addressed. With an overwhelming Muslim majority of over 96 per cent in Pakistan, non-Muslim citizens fail to constitute important vote banks. Furthermore, they are divided and sub-divided among themselves with the result that they are unable to exert pressure on political parties which are not dependent heavily on non-Muslim vote.

There are only 10 seats for non-Muslims, out of 342, in the National Assembly which comes to less than three per cent. When the National Assembly seats were enhanced from 207 to 272, the number of non-Muslim seats remained the same. Non-Muslim citizens are inadequately represented in legislatures with the result that their impact on legislation is minimal.

Political parties are generally reluctant to give tickets to non-Muslim candidates on general seats as they keep an eye on their conservative vote banks to gain a majority in the parliament. As Samson Sharaf, a former senior officer of Pakistan Army and now a political commentator, writes in a newspaper article: “Lost in the quest of winning candidates, political parties across the board have neither the time nor the intent to address the issues in the larger interests of ‘diversity as strength’ and ‘nation building’… In the unkindest cut of all, even if Non Muslims join political parties, the effort notwithstanding their qualifications, capabilities and services to the nation is to confine them to minority roles. The mental inertia that inhibits the bureaucracies of political parties and their leaders is far too strong to cut across self-created exclusive divides and open doors to diversity and inclusivity.”

Sharaf thus points out the inherent contradiction in defining a ‘nation’ in terms of one religion for such a definition negates the very idea that all those who live within the territorial boundaries of a state constitute a nation irrespective of creed, belief, sect, ethnicity or gender.

In the past, the 10 seats allocated in the National Assembly to non-Muslims were proportionally divided among different religious groups but this has been discontinued. Now, non-Muslim religious communities vie against each other for the small number of reserved seats in the National Assembly. As Sharaf says: “On their part, the Non Muslim communities in Pakistan also stand divided on religious and narrow self-centred basis. This divide is exploited by political parties in their own numerical interests.”

With the passage of the 18th Constitutional amendment, four non-Muslim seats have been added in the Senate which means that only one non-Muslim citizen represents the whole province. With democracy becoming based on religious notions of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’, non-Muslim citizens have representation in elected assemblies which is even less than their small numbers in the country.

Political parties tend to choose pliant candidates for reserved seats who are more likely to toe the party line rather than further the interests of their communities. As Pervez Bhatti, a minority spokesperson, says: “The so-called representatives belonging to other religions in assemblies are not true and genuine representatives because they are not elected by votes; they are only selected by political parties for their own benefit. This is a clear violation of Article 226 and open discrimination.”

The picture is even more complicated for non-Muslim women who do not get nominated by political parties on either minority seats or on women’s reserved seats. This group faces triple discrimination on the basis of gender, religion and class/caste. It is for this reason that the candidature of Veeru Kohli is significant for its symbolic and political value.

Born a landless hari, Veeru Kohli was a bonded labourer who managed to escape from the slavery of a landlord. She is now a candidate for Sindh Assembly from PS-50 in Hyderabad. Her election manifesto reflects the need to transform the socio-economic system based on class, caste and religious distinctions that produce and are produced by inequality. It covers a range of issues from ending bonded labour to the provision of health, education, clean drinking water, sanitation, crime prevention and the protection of the rights of the Sindhis at the tail end of the Indus to get a just share of the river waters. She wants nothing less than to change the socio-economic and sociopolitical structure of the land where she is a tiller of soil.

If non-Muslim candidates were to unite by ending their mutual differences, they could determine the outcome of elections – if not entirely then at least in a number of constituencies – because 2.77 million non-Muslim voters are concentrated in certain areas of Sindh and Punjab and even constitute majorities in some constituencies. According to a report in daily Dawn (19 March 2013), non-Muslim citizens could make a difference in at least 96 constituencies if they chose to vote collectively for specific parties or candidates. Christian leader, George Clement, claims that 98 National Assembly constituencies have thousands of members of religious minorities but, by and large, they are ignored by political parties while awarding tickets and consequently they end up voting for Muslim candidates.

A glance at the election manifestos of the leading parties reveals that the Awami National Party (ANP) has made the strongest commitment in terms of the “elimination of discrimination of any kind based on race, religion, creed or gender. Every citizen of Pakistan shall have equal rights and opportunities in the political, economic and social sense.” Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz (PMLN) promises to ensure the freedom of worship, prevent forced conversion, double development funds for non-Muslim Pakistanis and allow the unhindered management of educational institutions. Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) manifesto promises that non-Muslim citizens would be given statutory status and their properties would be provided state protection. Except for ANP, which promises the elimination of discrimination and promotes equal rights, the other parties focus more on social protection and human development, especially education. However, based on a survey published by the Herald in February 2013, it can be expected that the parties perceived to be secular and liberal in orientation – PPP, Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), ANP – would be more sensitive to the concerns of minorities than those committed to a religious or socially conservative worldview.

Interestingly, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, generally considered conservative, has submitted the longest list of 22 candidates to the Election Commission for the 10 non-Muslim seats in the National Assembly. The Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians has submitted 12 names. Even Jamaat-e-Islami has nominated 10 candidates for the non-Muslim seats and the list of PMLN candidates contains eight names for those seats. Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam–Fazl has also nominated six candidates while Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam and MQM have nominated five candidates each. It seems that in order to shore up their strength in the assemblies, even conservative and religious parties will vie for non-Muslim seats. However, it is not necessary that the non-Muslim candidates would be able to influence the agendas of these parties towards a more inclusive Pakistan based on respect for diversity.

Veeru Kohli, a former bonded labourer who is now a candidate for the Sindh Assembly. Photo courtesy Sara Faruqi
Veeru Kohli, a former bonded labourer who is now a candidate for the Sindh Assembly. Photo courtesy Sara Faruqi

Is democracy possible in the presence of religious nationalism?

Democracy, as absorbed in the Subcontinent, has come to depend on ethnic and religious vote banks which have historically resulted from the counting, classification and division of populations along these axes. Religious and ethnic majorities have based their nationalisms on religion and/or ethnicity which have led to historical exclusions of those in a minority. It can be deduced from these propositions that democracy – an idea based on equal citizenship irrespective of creed, ethnicity or gender – is not entirely possible so long as religious and ethnic nationalisms rule the day.